I’m going to say I was 9 years old. My family was driving to Chicago to visit my aunt’s family for Thanksgiving. While we were driving, my father took a moment to warn the kids that a distant cousin was going to be there, someone we hadn’t met, and he had a rare disease that made him severely deformed. My Dad, a wonderful man, didn’t really know how to talk to children about this sort of thing. So he told us to expect someone who “looks like a monster.” I was suddenly not looking forward to this Thanksgiving weekend.
I got to Chicago, and he was there, and he did look like a monster, more or less. I think he was about 16, but he looked like he could have been 70. He had an extremely rare disease where the tissues of his body were calcifying. He had an enormous curvature in his spine and growths coming out of his face. As I sit here now, I’d like to be able to say that I connected with him and learned something about our shared humanity. But I was 9, and honestly, he terrified me. Like, pants-shitting fear. Hard to describe. My parents, wonderful people, didn’t really talk to me about it. So I felt kind of alone in my horror and felt very guilty about what I was feeling. This distant cousin died of this disease a year or two later.
So the weekend ended and things returned to normal and my 9-year-old life became my 10-year-old life. And then one day I was flipping through Time Magazine and I turned a page and saw a photograph of a person with severe deformities who reminded me very much of my cousin. It was a short article about a guy from long ago named John Merrick. One of the odd things about this is that my father and my brother are named Merrick. At that point, I’d never known anyone with this name. It was just something in our family. And now it was this, too. I don’t remember the article but I do remember the photo—I can close my eyes and see the layout of the page, everything. I saw this picture and it frightened me. I couldn’t un-see it and I wanted to. I remember going to the mall with my mother directly after and I was sweating and feeling sick. And you know, you think about parents, what you hope to get from them—it would have been nice to be able to talk to them about this and why I was so scared. But that’s not the way it was, even though almost everything else about my childhood was comfortable and safe. It is what it is. I was and am very lucky, but there was this one thing. So I did a lot of thinking and trying to shut it out. And eventually I did.
A short while later I was watching television and a commercial came on for a movie called The Elephant Man. And though I couldn’t see the body of the person who gave the movie its name, I knew instantly what it was about. It was black and white, and there was a striking image in the commercial showing John Merrick standing somewhere with a hood on his head. It became a well-known movie poster. And I’m telling you, when I saw that TV spot for The Elephant Man, it changed my life. I was absolutely consumed with fear in every fiber in my being. Every night when I would go to sleep, I would look in the doorway and see John Merrick with that hood standing there. In the movie, of course, he’s a tragic figure and wouldn’t hurt a fly. But I didn’t know that. He wore a bag over his head with a hole in it to see out because people found him so hideous. I dunno, it was a lot to process in fifth grade. And I was not processing it well.
For some time afterwards—you know how it is when you’re a kid, I’m thinking it was months, but it was probably just a few weeks—I was terrified of even turning on the television, because I thought that commercial might come on. So I stopped watching TV. Which, since I was a 10-year-old boy, was a very big deal. TV was a huge part of my life. But it was too risky. No more television. Around this time, one of my favorite activities outside of television was reading the encyclopedia. And I made a rule that I would never again look at the book with the letter “M” because I was afraid there might be something in there about John Merrick and I might accidentally open the page to it. I’m probably slightly deficient in my learning about “M” things because of this. I was thinking hard about how to avoid him, trying to cover all the bases.
So for that period when I was afraid of the TV, I’d listen to the radio and read. This was my first time putting on music for enjoyment while completely on my own. My father’s stereo only got one station clearly, and it was WJIM. Mostly easily listening kind of stuff. Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Steve Winwood. I hear a handful of songs from that era now, and it brings me back to having the stereo on and trying to avoid any and all mentions of John Merrick. For the first time in my life I had the stereo on, just listening to tunes. I say I was “reading” but it was mostly the complete book of NFL statistics.
A few years later, longer story, I watched The Elephant Man and I loved it. Something had changed. And then David Lynch became one of my favorite filmmakers. And in Lynch on Lynch, he talked about John Merrick’s body and what attracted him to this story, and I read this and loved it:
You see pictures of explosions— big explosions— they always reminded me of these papillomatous growths on John Merrick’s body. They were like slow explosions. And they started erupting from the bone. I’m not sure what started the explosion, but even the bones were exploding, getting the same texture, and it would come out through the skin and make these growths that were slow explosions. So the idea of these smokestacks and soot and industry next to this flesh was also a thing that got me going…human beings are like little factories.
And so they are. Little factories producing all kinds of disgusting and disturbing things. And those things are us.